- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
Maintaining a military working dog’s health is crucial and handlers are given extensive training on how to care for their dogs — from grooming them to administering emergency care in a combat scenario. They learn to read their dogs for signs of pain, dehydration, gastrointestinal issues, spider bites, and dental problems.
An MWD that has a broken tooth or teeth that are worn down from age will not only be in some degree of pain (which could impede their eating and appetite) but won’t be able to bite with full capacity. In the photo above, U.S. Navy Master-at-Arms 3rd Class Ashly Lester, a military working dog handler, carries MWD Leska off the operating table after a surgery to remove a broken incisor at the camp’s medical facility on April 2. The pair is on assignment at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.
From the handlers I’ve interviewed over the years, it’s not uncommon to hear that the most proactive and committed among them have not only been present to observe their dog’s procedures and surgeries, but have scrubbed in and lent a helping hand. (In this photo, Leska is intubated during her surgery.)
Occasionally, when veterinarians aren’t on hand to manage medical procedures, doctors, or in this case dentists, who treat people will take over. It’s not at all uncommon in a combat theater where veterinary technicians aren’t on the scene, or even at a home station, for a medic with a unit to treat a dog — especially if the handler is incapacitated. A good case in point: In August 2013, the dentists from the 2nd Dental Squadron performed a root canal on MWD Zzeki at the Veterinary Treatment Facility at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
But, obviously, operating on a dog’s mouth poses certain challenges for someone used to a human’s set of teeth. “The largest difference in patients is the length of the tooth,” said Maj. (Dr.) Richard Howard, 2nd DS chief of endodontics at Barksdale. “In this case of performing a root canal, the tooth is longer and thinner, requiring us to change the tools and techniques we use.”
As Capt. (Dr.) Stephen Boh, a dental resident at Barksdale said, “During dental school there are lectures and pictures to familiarize us with canine anatomy.” But, he concedes, “the best way to learn this is to actually perform the operation.” And while there may be few opportunities to treat dogs, he views the ability to treat military working dogs a tremendous asset. “…[W]hat I’m learning now will have an impact in my career when I’m down range and I could possibly be the only dental specialist in the area to help keep MWDs mission-ready.”
Above, Leska wakes up after her surgery is over, maybe a little groggy from the anesthesia. Her handler is there by her side to greet her. Not to worry, Leska made a full recovery from the surgery.
Rebecca Frankel is senior editor, special projects at Foreign Policy. Her forthcoming book War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love comes out on Oct. 14 from Palgrave Macmillan.